‘Broker title hell’ sets in

With corporate titles gone, agents scramble for new ways to distinguish their brands

Nov.November 01, 2013 07:00 AM

Richard Steinberg is in what he describes as “broker title hell.”

After 22 years at Warburg Realty, Steinberg had worked his way up to the rank of executive managing director. Then last spring, literally overnight, he became simply a “licensed associate real estate broker.”

Steinberg is one of thousands of New York City real estate brokers who had corporate titles until April, when the New York State Department of State ruled that brokers and agents can’t lay claim to any corporate title — such as managing director or senior vice president. The state said such corporate titles were misleading because brokers are independent contractors and do not have corporate duties. Now brokers can only hold one of three titles: “licensed broker,” “licensed associate broker” or “licensed real estate salesperson.” These titles stay the same no matter how many years of experience the agent has or how much business they bring in.

Now, six months after the ruling took effect, brokers say the change is still causing confusion among clients, while firms struggle to differentiate more experienced agents from those who are newer to the field. Some companies have gotten creative, coming up with new internal titles. Agents, meanwhile, are looking for other ways to distinguish themselves, often by turning to continuing education.

In the wake of the rule change, “everyone’s scrambling to find the next title of distinction,” said Warburg broker Steve Goldschmidt, one of founders of New York Residential Specialists, a designation backed by the Real Estate Board of New York.

What’s in a name?

In the past, Manhattan brokers earned corporate titles by completing a certain number (or dollar volume) of sales. Though benchmarks for reaching those titles were different for every firm, they helped convey a broker’s experience to the public.

“I was disappointed that we were forced to dismiss our titles,” said Warburg’s Steinberg. “In previous years, based on our production you were elevated. It was a reward.”

Since then, Steinberg said he has struggled to find other ways to signal his experience. For example, he’s changed his strategy when pitching potential clients. Now, instead of directing them to his website for information, he emails a list of his qualifications, including his highest-priced listings and significant deals.

He’s not the only agent looking for new ways to establish credibility with clients.

REBNY’s NYRS course has seen a significant uptick in interest from brokers since the rule change, Goldschmidt said.

Since it was founded in 2007, the NYRS course has been offered twice a year — in February and in September — and the 35 slots for the 26-hour class have been slow to sell out. But once the title ban was issued, the September class sold out in just a few weeks, Goldschmidt said, noting that the class had a waiting list for the first time.

In the past, “it was a struggle to fill all our seats,” he said. “The Department of State has done a favor for NYRS.”

But the NYRS designation doesn’t come cheap, or easy.

The course — which costs $495, plus $75 a year to keep the residential specialist designation — lasts for nine weeks, according to Shirley Hackel, co-chair of the course and an associate broker at Warburg. Even getting into the course takes a lot: a recommendation from a manager; the title of associate broker; five years of experience in the residential market, and at least 50 closed sales valued at $50 million.

Lee Frankel, an associate broker at CORE who is currently enrolled in the NYRS program, said the loss of his former title — senior associate real estate broker — was one reason he decided to sign up for the course.

He said he’s not sure how much the NYRS designation will actually impact his business, noting that he doesn’t believe the public really cares about titles.

“Maybe it doesn’t help,” he said, “but it certainly doesn’t hurt.”

Greg Young, the founder of the Manhattan-based real estate training firm Broker Heaven, said his company has never offered a formal certification or designation program, but he’s now looking into one in the wake of the DOS rule change.

Another designation is available to Manhattan brokers through REBNY competitor the Manhattan Association of Realtors, a local chapter of the National Association of Realtors. The trade organization currently has only about 400 Manhattan members, compared to REBNY’s 11,000 members.

Robert Pair, the president of MANAR and of the boutique brokerage Harlem Lofts, told TRD that brokers can receive a “realtor” designation by becoming a member of MANAR. In addition, NAR offers 22 other designations through educational courses, such as “certified international property specialist,” according to its website.

Pair said he has seen a “renewed” interested in MANAR recently, although he declined to say specifically how many more brokers have joined the organization in recent months.

“Now that someone can’t use the artificial vice president title,” he said, “to join an organization and pay some dues really makes sense to me.”

Brokerages, too, have come up with their own new, noncorporate titles. At Sotheby’s International Realty, for example, every broker is a now “global real estate advisor,” a title the firm started using immediately following the DOS ruling. Sotheby’s executives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Confused consumers

Many brokers don’t view these new titles as suitable substitutes for the ones they lost, however.

Diane Wildowsky, a Sotheby’s broker who was previously a vice president, said of her new global real estate advisor title: “We were all forced to do it, and we’re all learning to live with it.”

Steinberg said he hasn’t looked into finding a new certification or title.

“Even ‘specialist’ or ‘expert’ sounds sort of weird,” Steinberg said. “What does that mean?”

The rule change is somewhat ironic, he said, since its intent was to keep consumers from being duped or confused by the corporate titles. “With all the different designations, if a client wants to compare apples to apples, they really can’t do that anymore,” Steinberg said.

But not all agents dislike the title change.

Howard Margolis, a top producer at Douglas Elliman, said he doesn’t mind having lost his title of managing director, and, in fact, notes that he’s opposed to doing anything to replace it.

“[Real estate is] about being comfortable with who you are, and standing on the merits of what you’ve done,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the name of New York Residential Specialists.

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